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Abstract Choices

So you’re inspired by a realistic image be it a portrait, landscape, flower, bowl of fruit, your grandmothers shitzu, whatever. How do you go about abstracting something realistic? Last month I was inspired by a photograph that a friend of mine took of a cactus flower. I knew immediately that I wanted to “abstract” this image. After my “Wax With Whimsy” workshop at Wax Works West earlier this month I was inspired to explore an abstract workshop idea. It’s still in formulation but I thought that using my friend’s photo reference would be a perfect example of this process. After the hustle and bustle of the holidays I found a window of time to do my walk-through so I plugged in my hot plates and turned on my space heater.

In my mind there are 2 essential components to a successful abstract and I think of these before even picking up the brush…

1. Color: LIMIT YOURSELF! I am wholeheartedly a fan of the limited color palette. Before buying every color under the sun it is imperative to learn how to work with a simple palette of colors. This will teach you color mixing and harmony, two key ingredients to strengthening your artistic sensibility. I ask myself, “Can I simplify my color choice further? What can I do without?” I leave the rest of the colors in the drawer.

2. Composition: Vertical, horizontal or square? You do not need to match the composition of your reference photo. In fact, it is an interesting exercise if you play with cropping. How would you turn a horizontal into a vertical or visa versa? What I look at even before I begin painting is “where is my negative space?” Negative space is where the eye rests. I consider negative space to be just as important as the subject matter itself. Where is your focal point going to be?

Put it together: In the case of this demonstration I selected a mix of malachite green, quinacridone magenta, titanium white, pthalo blue, indian yellow, cadmium yellow light, mars yellow light and Mile’s Conrad’s sunset orange. I decided to keep the horizontal format and have my cactus flower “burst” towards the left of the painting. This way I can demonstrate an apples-to-apples abstract so you can see creative process side-by-side with the reference photo.

(1) I tone my background with transparent colors that I’ve diluted with wax medium. The piece begins as a sad homage to 80’s spatter paint, oh 90210 where have you gone? It’s pretty messy in this first stage: drips and disjointed brushstrokes layering together in a vague semblance of my reference photo. I continue layering in this fashion, periodically sealing in color with an isolation coat of wax medium, until I see a solid composition form around my focal point. The colors are fun to move around with the torch but I keep in mind that most of these initial layers are going to be lost.

(2) When I want to reign in those crazy disjointed colors I begin block in my negative space and reassert my focal point. In this second photo you can see how I’m using the purples and greens to fill in the gaps. I am using more opaque colors to add body. It is also important to consider your brushstrokes. Notice how my strokes have direction to create movement? An out of place brush stroke can awkwardly draw the eye off course. Would a blog post on brushstrokes just be way too technical? Perhaps not as technical on my future post of how Green Gold differs from brand to brand…ahhh, the color nerd in me.

(3) Compared to abstract painting I usually fall into the “realist” category. When you look at my paintings you can see – that is a person, that is a cow, that is a house. For me, abstracts are a way of flipping a real object inside out. It is an exercise out of my comfort zone. In this step I was able to catch myself veering off into realist territory. I started to get a little more “literal” with my cactus flower and buds at this point so I remind myself that I’m painting an abstract. I use my torch to release some control. The flowers melt into themselves and become more of a color suggestion of flowers. Phew!

(4) I still feel a lot of busy-ness happening so I tone down my malachite green and make a commitment to my negative space. You’ll notice that a lot of my initial layers have been covered. I cannot express enough that art, especially abstract art, is a process. You’ll create something, you’ll sacrifice it. In this case I sacrificed some background color. Remember, it’s all for the greater good!

(5) One of the joys of the encaustic process is carving, or “incising, into your painting. This reveals hidden layers and creates effects that you can’t get if you’re just applying paint. There is a delightful sculptural appearance that is easy to get lost in. I could paint a layer then scrape it away until the cows come home. This is a close up image of the first incisions. They create an even stronger sense of movement and there is an interesting contrast between the sharp lines and bold background strokes. I finish this step by painting color inside the incisions and scrape away the excess. Now my lines are a multicolored textural element.

Encaustic is a process that can move quickly because the wax cools so fast. You can immediately layer upon layer because you are not waiting for paint to dry. Encaustic and abstracts go hand-in-hand which is probably why you see so many of them. To stand out in the crowd it is important to have your own artistic voice. To strengthen your abstracts I suggest practicing realistic techniques. To strengthen your realistic painting I suggest practicing abstracts. Go figure! When you sit down to a blank canvas and you plan on painting an abstract, the best advice that I can offer is to release whatever preconceived image you have floating around in your head. It’s ok to have a plan, be more ok with letting go of it.

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